Posted by: thewhitesintokyo | December 21, 2008

Our last weekend in Tokyo of 2008

Part 1: Playing catch-up

We just finished the first semester with our students, but rather than leave to fly back to Minnesota immediately after school let out on Friday afternoon, we decided to put in a buffer period of two days to organize our life and get some R&R. So, that’s exactly what we did yesterday.

I woke up early to take out the trash and, after getting my fill of the political landscape around the world and taking a short bike trip to the store for a carton of milk, began cleaning. Together, Rachael and I cleaned for several hours: scrubbing, mopping, wiping, vacuuming and organizing. See, we have the advantage of being foreigner observers in what has to be one of the most obsessively clean cultures in the world.

Just a few of the rules and regs: 1.) Remove your shoes upon entering a fitting room, a restaurant, or a home, 2.) Sweep up literally every single fallen leaf in front of your house or business…every single day, 3.) Cover your trash bags in a large mesh blanket so as to discourage naughty crows from disturbing the clean ground that you just meticulously swept of disobedient leaves, 4.) Dust and mop, inside and out, on a daily basis, 5.) Using a warm towel, wipe your hands (some their face and neck too) before eating, 6.) Take all your trash and recyclables home when you are out and about, because there are no public trash cans so your trash is your responsibility, 7.) Place cigarette butts in appropriately labeled smoking station depositories, and smoke in sealed rooms inside of train stations and shopping malls. Needless to say, the list goes on.

And on. Although the task of conforming to these new standards has not always been easily managed, we have begun to pick up on these disciplined habits and incorporate them, nearly full-scale, into our life here. Surprisingly, rather than make life more complicated and difficult, it actually ends up reducing stress, because doing a bit each day nullifies the need to have big cleaning sprees where we spend hours, or even days, cleaning up our messes from the days and weeks before.

Part 2: Masks

Since arriving in Tokyo, we have made several attempts to get a window into the Japanese culture- to understand its intricacies, its beauty, and the unique aspects of a guarded culture that one can only experience living within the coastal frame of Japan. We have gotten a peek through some of those windows, but up until last night, we realized that we haven’t gotten to know Japan as well partly because we don’t know many Japanese people very well. Our life is an insulated one, working at an international school and attending an English-speaking international church.

Last night, we visited a local onsen, or Japanese hot spring. For the first time, we actually saw and heard couples talking sweetly to each other, and saw families interacting with one other. They actually spoke! All right, I exaggerate, but it is incredible how people do put on very public masks and don’t often allow them to be penetrated, especially by curious gaijin like us.

Like yesterday, for instance; I was out shopping and bought my grandmother a leaf-sweeper (a bit of an inside joke- she is equally as obsessed with sweeping leaves in her driveway in Iowa as are Tokyoites). The young woman at the checkout counter set the sweeper down and started counting my money. The sweeper fell. She picked it up, and apologized twice. Then, she began counting again. The sweeper fell again. She apologized again. There was no acknowledgment of the comedy of the situation. Just an apology, and she handed me my change. I chuckled a little, hoping to get the same out of her, but no reaction.

Part 3: The onsen experience

Anyway, back to the onsen. When you enter an onsen, you remove and store your shoes, pay a users’ fee, receive towels and a pretty stylish Japanese jogging suit, and have full use of the several different hot springs and bathing facilities for the day. After changing, we both wandered around our respective locker rooms, and came back out to the front, bewildered as to where to go or how to begin. I had read before that one must first bathe before entering the hot springs, but I wasn’t sure where or how to do that.

Immediately upon exiting the locker room was a small tub with ladles. It didn’t look big enough to sit in, and I wasn’t sure if I should take a drink with a ladle (like at a Shinto shrine) or spoon water onto myself. Next, in an adjoining large room, there were several buckets on the floor along the walls. Water spigots and bottles appearing to be soap or shampoo were placed near each bucket. That looked like a promising place to start. Next to that room, there was a large older man lying face down, getting a sponge bath from a pretty young woman. That was not so promising- especially for a happily married gaijin looking to keep things that way. 🙂

Luckily, a kind older gentleman could see I was pretty unsure of what to do, so he offered to show me to the outdoor pools. Rachael just had to fend for herself and try to find us. Eventually, we met back up on the other side of the bathing area, and walked in the direction pointed out by our new friend. Although it was in the lower 40s, we walked barefoot down a magical wooden path under an umbrella of red Japanese sugar maples, past statues and manicured bushes. Finally, we made it to the outdoor pool. We sought out this particular pool because swimsuits were required there. No, we weren’t quite ready for the whole coed-naked approach to relaxing at the spa.

For the next hour or so, we sat in the corner of a seemingly ancient symmetrical stone pool looking out on the city lights. This particular onsen is located on the top floor of a tall building in our neighborhood, so it overlooks the city and even has a clear view of Mt. Fuji. It truly feels as though you’re in a forest that happens to have a view of the entire city. The water was a pale green, stemming from the various minerals in the rocks and water, and steam skimmed and swirled across the surface. The combination of the frigid air and the 106 degree water worked wonders to put both of us at ease.

We decided that the onsen must be the Japanese fountain of youth. In rural and pre-modern Japan, the onsen was the method of bathing for entire communities. After working the fields all day, men, women and children would come to the onsen to bathe and relieve their stressed muscles in the scaldingly hot water. With the fast pace of Japanese work life, we can certainly understand why the onsen is still a popular spot today. Maybe someday we’ll get up enough courage to go to a more traditional onsen; you know, the kind where swimsuits are not only optional but not allowed. Until then, we’ll definitely be returning to this hidden jewel, just a three-minute walk from our apartment.



  1. […] week…after months of living in this apartment!   Now we all know that the Japanese love bathing, cleanliness and bathroom technology, and this is just the latest in our ongoing fascination with these various […]

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